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North Harrison defender Maddie Nicolas slides in front of an Evansville Mater Dei attacker to contest a shot on goal Saturday. Photo By Brian Smith

Strike-first Lady Cats can't hang with defending champs


October 23, 2019
The historical records between North Harrison and Evansville Mater Dei on the girls' soccer pitch would be a cause for concern.

Fresh off its first Class 2A Sectional title, North Harrison was bound for the Jasper Regional for the first time. The counterpart in the regional semi-final Saturday morning –– Evansville Mater Dei –– was playing up a class due to the tournament success factor. The success included capturing back-to-back state championships at the 1A level. Go ahead and throw in 12 sectionals and eight regionals into the mix.

North Harrison, however, didn't look disheveled by the challenge Saturday. In fact, the Lady Cats got on the board first with a Cassie Dossett goal in the eighth minute to put pressure on the favorites.

In the end, the skill and class of Mater Dei prevailed with a 4-1 victory, ending North Harrison's season.

"We haven't played a lot of teams at this caliber this season, so it's great to get an opportunity to play a team with so much skill and talent," said North Harrison's Gabrielle Scott. "I'm really proud of the way we played."

"They worked very hard," said North Harrison co-coach Holly Smith.

Mater Dei's Este Bonnell had a shot ring the post in the eighth minute then a follow-up attempt was saved by Bella Gerlach.

Moments later, North Harrison found the back of the net. After a foul was whistled near midfield, Lady Cats' defender Lucy Robertson stepped up to send a free kick over the center of the pitch. Landing just in front of the penalty box, Dossett and Scott converged on the ball, tapping it through the legs of Mater Dei goalie Sabrina Henderson.

With only the goal between her and the ball, Dossett easily polished off the scoring chance for a 1-0 Lady Cats' lead.

"Getting that first goal in the beginning shows them that, if you believe, if you try, it can happen," said North Harrison co-coach Laura Rainbolt. "That was a win right there for them."

Robertson said added belief was injected into the team.

"Honestly, I think our team wasn't worried about it because we knew how difficult this game was going to be," said Robertson. "We had that belief after the goal. I don't think we played bad. We played really well. We're a really good team, and they are a really good team too that made some shots."

Mater Dei was held off the scoreboard until the mid-point of the opening half. Gerlach, who faced 35 shots in the match, had a sliding save to deny Bonnell a scoring chance. On the ensuing corner kick, Bonnell sent a lofting ball that found the thigh of Megan Gries for the equalizer.

Two minutes later, another set piece went the way of Mater Dei. Bonnell, from the corner, went back post for Audrey McDurmorn to head to the back of the net.

Spreading the field, Bonnell went wide to the left side. Slipping a quick inside pass to Ellsa Bonnell, she was able to beat the North Harrison defense for a 3-1 half-time lead.

"It was a challenge, trying to figure out where I should be for my teammates," said North Harrison's Maddie Nicolas. "Also, we had to make sure we didn't get frustrated if the ball got past us. I think we adjusted pretty well considering the level of team we played."

Often attacking three forwards, Mater Dei created plenty of offensive pressure. Normally strikers or attacking midfielders, Nicolas and Scott were called upon to help on the defensive end with Sydney Raney, Jaicey Stone and Robertson.

"They threw Jaicey around, but she really stepped up," said Rainbolt. "Our entire defense stepped up. I know a lot of our underclassmen really played hard in this one for our senior class. They played with a lot of heart, and it showed."

Bumps and bruises were evident post-game as the Lady Cats threw bodies around to try and slow the Wildcats' attack.

Chances were fewer for Mater Dei in the early stages of the second half. Tess Freeman had a one-on-one chance against Gerlach, but the sophomore came up with a quality save.

"(Gerlach) really kept us in this game," said Nicolas. "She worked hard. She played her heart out for the seniors."

North Harrison had a chance to make it a one-goal game with 21 minutes to go. On a break, Dossett took a try from the right side that bounced off the keeper. Arianna Black took a rebound try for the Lady Cats, but her attempt went up and over the bar.

Mater Dei would add one more goal, via Ellsa Bonnell, in the final 10 minutes.

A takeaway from the first regional experience for Rainbolt was the intensity needed.

"One thing is they have to want to be here and believe in each other," she said. "It doesn't matter how skilled you are; if you don't want it, you are already taking yourself out of the equation. That mindset is one thing. Trying to anticipate the level of skill, talent and intensity we saw, it's getting the girls to transition and attack together and not play scared. You don't want to collapse under their pressure, rather embrace it."

Mater Dei (14-6-1) went on to defeat Northview 7-2 in the regional final.

The Lady Cats (13-3-2) will graduate 10 seniors.

"It's a weird feeling because it's the end of my high school soccer career, and I've played since I was little," said Robertson. "I'm, honestly, not heart-broken. I'm really proud of our girls. Along the way, we are a family and we played really tough."

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